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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard, written by Alan Bradley. Doubleday, Random House. 2011. $29.95 ages 10 and up

"I had already learned that sisterhood, like Loch Ness, has things that lurk unseen beneath the surface, but I think it was only now that I realized that of all the invisible strings that tied the three of us together, the dark ones were the strongest."

Oh, I love that Flavia de Luce! She is a worthy and mesmerizing character. This is her third case, and Alan Bradley's mastery of this eleven year old's voice and singular personality does not wane. She is impertinent, shrewd and extremely well read. She is unlike many of the eleven year old girls that I have known; but, she can also be self-absorbed, bent on retribution, and even foolhardy. All that being said,  I really like her!

She shares so much of herself, her reasoning, her education and her family life as she tells her tale of a brutal beating and murder. She also shares the hurt she feels at the hands of her older sisters, the longing she feels for her dead mother, and her better understanding of her father's self-indulgence and lack of connection to his daughters.

Bishop's Lacey hasn't changed much since we were here in the first book. However, along with Flavia and her bicycle Gladys we travel the streets and discover little corners we may not have seen in previous visits. Many of the people remain small-minded, and it offers just the right setting for a murder or two. The local constabulary is efficient and not too proud to accept Flavia's help when needed; they also would like her to stand back and leave the sleuthing to them when possible. Flavia sees no sense in that, and lets little stand in the way of her solving this murder mystery. She gets her information in bits and pieces from the townsfolk and from keen observation, and shares it when she thinks it should be shared.

We're only halfway through the book when she makes this observation:

"It was all so confoundedly complicated: the attack upon Fenella, the gruesome death of Brookie Harewood, the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Porcelain, Harriet's firedogs turning up in not one but three different locations, the strange antiques shop of the abominable Pettibones, Miss Mountjoy and the Hobblers, Vanetta Harewood's long-lost portrait of Harriet, and underneath it all, like the rumble of a stuck pipe organ, the constant low drone of Father's looming bankruptcy."

Alan Bradley weaves a tightly plotted story that concerns community feelings about the gypsies who travel nearby roads, a lost baby, and old religious practices. He never gives away too much, and it is not easy for the reader to know what is likely to happen next. Flavia is at the heart of every scene, using her wit, her tenacity and her indomitable spirit to push the story to its inevitable conclusion, leaving us wishing that the next case was at the top of our TBR pile. I understand the next one is due very soon...just in time for Christmas and a lovely holiday read!

I want to leave you with just one of my favorite lines from the young woman herself:

"I had long ago discovered that when a word or formula refused to come to mind, the best thing for it was to think of something else: tigers, for instance, or oatmeal. Then, when the fugitive word was least expecting it, I would suddenly turn the full blaze of my attention back onto it, catching the culprit in the beam of my mental torch before it could sneak off again into the darkness.

"Thought-stalking," I called the technique, and I was proud of myself for having invented it."

Those of you reading this, and who are close to my age, will understand exactly what she is saying. I think I will use 'thought-stalking' as description from here forward. Thanks, Flavia!

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